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    Percy
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Dead Dog Couloir - 2. Ascending

With the clawed tread of the crampons, they began kick-stepping their way up the couloir. Their progress was steady and when Aaron paused to look up, he could see that they were gaining on Gene and Mandy. Or at least, they were gaining on Mandy.

“Seth, when you move ahead, tell me if you see Gene up there.”

The two of them were climbing single file and taking turns in the lead. Seth moved ahead of Aaron, laboriously kicking in footholds as he went. After a dozen or so steps he stopped, panting. They were gaining elevation. The air was thinning. “He’s up there but he’s pretty far ahead of her, maybe 20 paces or so.”

“What’s going on? Is she making her way down?”

“No, it looked like she was stopped.”

Aaron nodded at Seth to keep going and after a few more paces they traded places again, Aaron in the lead. It was a steady rhythm. Kick, kick with the right leg to make an indentation in the snow and then step upon the mini-ledge. Kick, kick with the left leg to make the next mini-ledge and then step up. The person in front did all the work and the person behind followed in the steps made by the leader. This is why they were trading off.

Once in a while, they would get a good run of steps made by Gene and Mandy but those had been sporadic. Poor technique. Aaron looked up the mountain. Mandy was moving again and moving up the mountain, not down, so she hadn’t abandoned the climb. Gene had continued at a faster pace and was now quite a bit farther ahead of his girlfriend. Aaron kicked more forcefully into the snow. Gene was either a total ass or just plain stupid. Why had he left his climbing partner to struggle up on her own? Was she injured, sick? If so, why didn’t she descend? Why wouldn’t both of them descend?

When Seth moved ahead again, Aaron voiced his thoughts about the other climbing party. By the time he next took the lead, Mandy wasn’t too far ahead. From here, Aaron could see her move up in two or three quick lunges and stop to recover her breath. Her progress in this manner was slow. Behind him, he could hear Seth panting. The exertion in the thin air was becoming more of a challenge but he and Seth had found a steady pace for themselves, allowing them to keep stops to a minimum.

Mandy must have heard their approach. She didn’t look back as they neared, but she stopped ascending and inched her way to the side to let them pass. The smiling girl of this morning was gone, but Aaron was relieved to see she didn’t look ill. Her color was good and, stopped as she was, she’d immediately recovered her breath. She didn’t appear to be in any crisis for air.

Aaron moved to a spot just above her and anchored his ice axe into the snow. Below him and Mandy, Seth did the same.

“Water break?” Seth called up.

“Sounds good to me.” The pitch was too steep to take a chance on removing his pack. It was likely to roll down into the gulch. Aaron fished an energy bar out of a coat pocket and sucked on the tubing that led to the water bladder in his bag.

“You guys made good time.” With mittened hands, Mandy tried to tuck an errant curl back under her knit cap.

“You too. We left not long after you and your boyfriend.”

Mandy grimaced. “Gene is still making good time. I’ve slowed down considerably.”

The sun crested the ridge to the east, slashing across the snow and turning it a glaring white. The three of them fished out sunglasses.

“When we saw you two separate, we were worried you were injured or sick. You’re not, are you?”

“No, it’s just the thin air and the steepness. This is a lot tougher than anything I’ve done before.”

Next to them, a handful of marble sized specks of rock rolled down, leaving faint lines in the snow. Aaron frowned. “We should get going. Sun’s up. Can’t dally anymore.”

“No one’s been dallying. Rest breaks are part of climbing smart, you’ve always said.” Seth tugged at the zippers on his jacket, making adjustments for the change in temperature.

“No, he’s right.” Mandy chewed on a lip as she looked up towards Kelso ridge and then down to the gulch. “You guys need to get going. That’s why Gene moved ahead. He wanted to be done with Dead Dog by the time the sun hit. He told me he’d do all the leading and I should follow. He said it would be easier for me since all the steps were kicked in already, but I kept falling farther and farther back.”

What an idiot. Aaron didn’t voice the observation. Instead he looped the tether of his ice axe back over his wrist. “You can hike with us now.”

“I’ll probably just hold you guys up. You go ahead.” Mandy chewed on her bottom lip. “I told Gene I might turn back if I couldn’t pick up my pace. That’s probably why he pulled so far ahead.”

“Going down at this point would be more dangerous than continuing up. The three of us are going to stick together. Seth, you’re in front. Mandy will follow you.”

Even with the increasingly steep pitch and the higher elevation, they made decent time up the couloir. The snow was sweating. Rivulets of water beaded and rolled down. The sun baked the three of them as they hiked, the layers of clothing closest to their skin damp from their exertions. Even the best wicking material wasn’t up to the job of keeping them completely dry.

He and Seth were trading the position at the front, keeping Mandy between the two of them.

“I can’t believe how much easier it is hiking now. I thought I’d be dying up here in this thin air.” Mandy panted out the words as she went, gamely planting her ice axe and push/pulling herself up as she put her feet into the steps Aaron had just made.

“The three of us are about the same height give or take a couple inches.” Aaron called the words down to her, was immediately short of breath and had to recover 2-3 paces before he could speak again. “Gene looks like he’s at least a foot taller than you.”

Again, he ceased talking to recover his breath.

“He was making the steps too far apart. You either had to lunge to follow them or kick-step your own. Exhausting work to do the whole time.”

Aaron stopped completely on the trail and the other two stopped behind him. “He needed to adjust for the shortest person in the climbing party.”

“I thought it was just me being new at climbing with all this winter gear!” Mandy had definitely rebounded. “Wait until I tell Gene.”

A chunk of ice and rock the size of a baseball trundled down their left side while another group of pebble sized rocks rolled down their right. The mountain was literally disintegrating around them. The snow pack was melting off the mountain and taking bits of the old craggy thing with it.

Aaron looked up. He could see the tracks where Gene had traversed to the right side of the couloir to gain the ridge. A cornflower blue sky made a stark contrast with the white and brown of the mountain.

“Looks like your boyfriend is already on the other side of the ridge. Was he going to wait for you there or at the summit?”

“The ridge, I think. He didn’t say.”

“Well, I’m guessing we’ll find out in another 15 minutes or so. We’ll stop once more before we cross to the other side and when we do go, we’ll cross one at a time.”

Mandy’s new smile dropped from her face and she looked worried again. Behind her Seth was still panting. He hadn’t recovered from this last section of the climb as quickly as Aaron and Mandy. Aaron was about to press on in the lead when Mandy tapped his elbow. “Let me go first. I might not last very long but I can do some of the work.”

Aaron felt stupidly proud of her for volunteering and nodded at her to go ahead. Seth went next, looking somewhat pale under the sheen of sweat on his face. Aaron started to ask how he felt and then bit his tongue. At this point, the safest way down the mountain was via the summit. However they felt, they had to keep climbing.

Mandy lasted longer than Aaron expected in the lead. Her steps were pretty good, too, and easy for he and Seth to follow in. Seth took the lead briefly but was obviously flagging. Aaron was back in front for the traverse across the couloir.

“We’re doing this one at a time. Looking at Gene’s path, it looks like the snow is firm close to us here. We can create a small shelf with the sides of our boots. Make sure your crampons are tight before you start. Rely on your ice axe and lean into the mountain. I see where Gene post-holed on the far side. That means the snow is softer there. It couldn’t support his weight. Be prepared. You guys ready?”

Seth and Mandy both nodded. “Seth, I’m sending you off first.”

“See you at the top.” His boyfriend muttered the words.

“Hey,” Aaron leaned closer to Seth. “What’s up? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

Aaron moved to give Seth a quick kiss as a sendoff, but Seth reached up to adjust his sunglasses. They didn’t connect and Seth started off across sunny patch of steep snow. Had he just avoided Aaron or had he truly not seen Aaron’s intent to kiss him? Aaron felt it might be the former. But why?

“So you’ve done this a lot?” Mandy asked the question even as she watched Seth’s careful progress.

“A few times.” Aaron looked down at her. She was chewing her bottom lip. He wanted to tell her there was no need to be nervous, but of course that would be a lie. “Not to freak you out, but how familiar are you with what to do if you get swept down in an avalanche?”

“I’ve taken my basic mountain safety course. I know how to self-arrest, create an air pocket and all that.”

“It probably won’t be needed. Everything here looks as good as it could.”

“It’s gorgeous up here.” Mandy was looking back the way they’d come. Steven’s Gulch was far below them. The skiers and snowboarders were down below, colorful specks zipping down the slopes on the opposite side of the basin. The blue sky was disturbed only by the contrails of an airplane far above.

Mandy’s eyes sparkled at him. “This is why I climb. It’s for views like this. It’s for this feeling. Heck, I think sometimes this is why I’m even with Gene. He got me into climbing and I can’t give it or him up now.”

“There are other people you could climb with.” Like me, Aaron thought. She was a good companion. Spirited. Capable.

“Look, your boyfriend made it.”

Aaron turned back from the view and Mandy. Seth had not only made it across, he had gained the ridge. Aaron caught sight of Seth’s silhouette just as he disappeared on the other side. “Your turn, Mandy.”

She started out using the ledge Seth had created but slipping as she went. The snow was slick where he had pressed it in. Aaron was about to call out to her to create a new path for herself-the fresh snow would give better traction- when she started doing just that on her own.

She moved with a careful sort of confidence. Though new to mountaineering, she was obviously athletic, comfortable in her body and its capabilities. Dressed in such brightly colored attire, she added a cheery note to the mountainside. Funny how when he’d been dating women, he’d never been able to find one like Mandy, one who embraced a love of the mountains the same way he did.

As soon as she made it to the other side, Aaron began his crossing. More rocks and detritus from the mountain continued to break away but it was mostly below him. The snow was thick and wet at the top of the trough. Mid way across he stopped to check Mandy’s progress and found her standing at the top of the ridge. When she saw him looking up, she raised her ice axe over her head and pumped it. Victory. Wind ripped at the hood of her jacket.

Aaron gave her a thumb's up and returned his attention to the last part of his climb. Once on the right side of the couloir, it was easy work to follow in Seth and Mandy’s footsteps to the ridge. He crested it and was met with a blast of cold air. His eyes watered and he struggled to inhale against the cold and wind. Seth was huddled on the trail, arms hugging his knees to his chest.

Aaron squatted near him and began removing his crampons as quickly as possible. They wouldn’t be needed on the rocky path along the ridge. “Where’s Mandy?”

He had to yell to be heard.

Seth’s head jerked in the direction of Torreys’ summit. His teeth chattered. “She went ahead.”

“You should have gone too.” Aaron was still yelling. “It’s freezing up here.”

Aaron stood and Seth attempted to stand but the cold and long wait in his crouched position had cramped his legs. He stumbled. Aaron grabbed the sleeve of Seth’s jacket and then a shoulder to steady him. “Why didn’t you follow Mandy? It was crazy to wait around up here.”

He gave his boyfriend a little shake. Seth regained his balance and turned away to trudge towards the summit but not before Aaron saw the hurt in his eyes. Damn it. But now was not the time for an apology. They needed to get moving. The activity would keep them warm and once at the summit they should be able to find a wind break amongst the rocks.

Ahead, he could see a bright yellow and orange figure near the summit. Mandy had almost made it. Presumably Gene would be there waiting for her. The top of the peak was not far off, but Seth’s steps were plodding. Belatedly Aaron remembered the wan complexion of his boyfriend at the top of the couloir. Damn. They had made it through the most dangerous section but that didn’t necessarily mean they were out of danger. There were still a dozen things that could go badly and getting sick was one of them.

Anger welled up again. Why hadn’t Seth gone on to the summit once he felt how cold it was on the ridge? He’d learned at least that much from Aaron, hadn’t he? Don’t let yourself get chilled. Pay attention to signs of hypothermia, altitude sickness. Aaron couldn’t do all the thinking for both of them. Even Mandy had kept going, heading straight for the top after gaining the ridge.

Resentment built even as Aaron recognized that it was an overreaction to the reality of the situation. He plodded behind Seth, eyes on the dark green storm jacket and matching backpack.

He tried to tease out the source of his dissatisfaction. He wasn’t mad at Seth for getting sick. While waiting for Aaron and getting unnecessarily chilled hadn’t been the wisest move, it hadn’t put either of them in real peril. He was leaning into the wind, following in Seth’s footsteps while skirting rock piles and trying to reason through the muck of feelings when Mandy’s cheerful voice hailed them.

“Finally!” She was standing atop a flat boulder watching their approach. “You’re almost here! Just a few more steps.”

And so they were. They crested the last few steps to the summit and the snowcapped Rocky Mountains spread out to the west. It was a clear day, only the faintest wisps of white clouds in a blue sky. The wind was just as ferocious here as it had been on the last part of the trail. Seth was panting next to him, barely taking in the view. Aaron spotted a windbreak on the west side of the summit; a wall of stones had been piled up by some previous climbing party. Gene was huddled down near it munching an apple.

“What took you guys so long?” Mandy hopped off her rock and landed near them. “I can’t believe these views. They’re even better in the wintertime than in the summer. I want the three of us to get some pictures.”

“Seth needs to sit down for a bit.” Aaron pressed a glove covered hand to his boyfriend’s lower back, urging him towards the windbreak. Seth didn’t budge.

“I’m fine.” He snapped the words at Mandy and glowered at Aaron. Aaron dropped his hand, and Seth walked the few paces over to the windbreak and sat, removing his pack as he did.

Aaron shrugged but Mandy didn’t seem to notice Seth’s mood. “I was hoping you two would show up soon. Gene wanted to start down, but I want a picture of the three of us, maybe with Mt. Holy Cross in the background.”

She was clearly thrilled at her accomplishment in making it to the top. Like Aaron, she’d reveled in nature’s reward, taking in the stunning vistas to which no photograph could ever do justice. Aaron couldn’t help grinning in response. “You’re lucky. The cross isn’t visible every year. Took me three winters before I finally saw it in full.”

He was referring to the large cross created by the snowfields on Mt. Holy Cross’ eastern slope. He walked to the summit edge near the windbreak and looked to the west. Sure enough, the cross this year was distinct, a pure white against the barren, brown rock of the mountain slope. “How about if I get a picture of you and Gene?”

“Sweetheart, please?” Mandy held her hand out to the tall man. Gene levered himself up to stand next to her. Aaron took a couple shots with Mandy’s phone, but when he went to hand it back to her, she implored Gene to take the phone instead.

“I want you to get some photos with me and Aaron and Seth. This climb wouldn’t have been the same without them.”

“If it’ll convince you to put on your pack and come off the summit, fine.” Gene took the phone.

Seth, however, refused to join them. “Too cold to be standing around in the wind. I’m hunkering down here until we’re ready to leave.”

Gene smirked. Mandy looked hurt. Aaron forced a smile on his face while Gene snapped a photo of him and Mandy. Gene walked over and tucked Mandy’s phone into one of the front pockets of her jacket. “Let’s go.”

He bent to grab his pack.

“I didn’t get a chance to thank you earlier for helping me out on the couloir.” Mandy, too, was donning her backpack. “I was starting to think I wasn’t cut out to make it to the top when you and Seth came along.”

“My pleasure. It’s always nice to meet someone so enthusiastic about climbing. Your boyfriend is a lucky guy.”

“So is yours.”

Aaron smiled. “Be safe on the descent.”

“My first glissade. I’m looking forward to it.”

“Well, remember, you can sit down. A standing glissade is a lot tougher. And have your ice axe ready. It’s easy to pick up speed. Too much speed. The ice axe is your rudder.”

“I think I can manage to get my girlfriend down the mountain.” Gene had appeared next to them again. He gave Aaron a scowling look. “Why don’t you make sure you do the same for your boyfriend? He’s not looking so good.”

Even with Gene’s sneer over the word ‘boyfriend’, the barb hit home. Aaron felt a flush of guilt and anger rise on his face. Gene and Mandy moved off and Aaron went to squat down next to Seth. Gene was right. Seth didn’t look so good, but he did look better than he had on the ridge. His color was back and he was no longer shivering.

“Tell me what you think is going on, Seth. I’m worried about you.”

Thanks for reading!

Copyright © 2014 Percy; All Rights Reserved.
If you enjoyed what you have read, please leave a reaction and/or comment for the author!

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Chapter Comments

Poor Seth. Even though his boyfriend was joking, trying to make small talk, obviously he took it to heart about the kind of girl he'd go for. :(

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On 03/21/2014 05:15 AM, Cole Matthews said:
Hmmmm...so Aaron's attentiveness seems to be noticed. Intriguing. Great work!
Thank you! Glad this came across. I appreciate the feedback.
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On 03/21/2014 07:06 AM, joann414 said:
Poor Seth. Even though his boyfriend was joking, trying to make small talk, obviously he took it to heart about the kind of girl he'd go for. :(
I know! I felt badly for Seth even as I wrote this. Thanks for commenting.
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On 03/21/2014 08:01 AM, carringtonrj said:
A great continuation of this story. So well paced and handled. Wonder how they'll all get on from here on in.
It's all downhill from here, Carrington. x
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Percy, I love this. Let me be the first to say it: damn, what a title! This is easily my favorite title I've seen on GA thus far. It's straightforward and it has a great ring.

That said, you're doing a fantastic job characterizing with the scenery and all the climbing terminology. You've got a lot of good stuff going on here. I find Aaron to be quite compelling. I'm interested to see whether his heart is with Seth or with the thrill of the climb. The setting is incredibly vivid and beautifully depicted. I'm intrigued. Can't wait to hear more about these two.

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On 03/21/2014 04:31 PM, Aaron Penrose said:
Percy, I love this. Let me be the first to say it: damn, what a title! This is easily my favorite title I've seen on GA thus far. It's straightforward and it has a great ring.

That said, you're doing a fantastic job characterizing with the scenery and all the climbing terminology. You've got a lot of good stuff going on here. I find Aaron to be quite compelling. I'm interested to see whether his heart is with Seth or with the thrill of the climb. The setting is incredibly vivid and beautifully depicted. I'm intrigued. Can't wait to hear more about these two.

Aw, thanks for the compliments. I confess, I can't take too much credit for the title since this is a real place named for a real dog that fell to its death. Or so the lore goes. I'm glad it's all coming together as far as the climbing terms and descriptions. Thanks for leaving a review, Aaron!
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I didn't understand why Seth was so upset until I read Jo Ann's review and said, "Oh, he's jealous!" But really, he has no reason to be. Aaron is not going to leave him for a girl he doesn't even know and who already has a b/f (even though said b/f is an ass).

 

I think Seth is being too sensitive. Regardless, Aaron will probably have a lot of sucking up to do. Pardon the pun. lol

 

I also loved this chapter for the vivid descriptions of the scenery I've been to Snowmass in Aspen many times, and even though it's not as high in altitude as Dead Dog Couloir, (I'm assuming), the view from on top of the mountain is beautiful.

 

I'm looking forward to the next chapter, Percy. Hopefully Seth can talk to Aaron and let him know why he's so upset.

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On 03/22/2014 12:37 PM, Lisa said:
I didn't understand why Seth was so upset until I read Jo Ann's review and said, "Oh, he's jealous!" But really, he has no reason to be. Aaron is not going to leave him for a girl he doesn't even know and who already has a b/f (even though said b/f is an ass).

 

I think Seth is being too sensitive. Regardless, Aaron will probably have a lot of sucking up to do. Pardon the pun. lol

 

I also loved this chapter for the vivid descriptions of the scenery I've been to Snowmass in Aspen many times, and even though it's not as high in altitude as Dead Dog Couloir, (I'm assuming), the view from on top of the mountain is beautiful.

 

I'm looking forward to the next chapter, Percy. Hopefully Seth can talk to Aaron and let him know why he's so upset.

Thanks Lisa! The pitfalls of communication...lack of communication...miscommunication. Snowmass Village is lovely. The town is lower in elevation than Torreys and Dead Dog but Snowmass Mountain is a fourteener too. A real adventure to climb as well. Thanks for the review!
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Oh dear. Sensitivities and issues around a perceived threat maybe? Poor Seth has gotten his nose bent out of shape, and with good reason it would seem to be fair.

Funny how a simple comment meant for another reason entirely can come back to haunt you when you least expect it.

LOL

Superb detail in your writing Percy. It flows and keeps a steady pace, while keeping the reader glued wanting to know what is coming next.

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On 10/12/2014 09:58 AM, Yettie One said:
Oh dear. Sensitivities and issues around a perceived threat maybe? Poor Seth has gotten his nose bent out of shape, and with good reason it would seem to be fair.

Funny how a simple comment meant for another reason entirely can come back to haunt you when you least expect it.

LOL

Superb detail in your writing Percy. It flows and keeps a steady pace, while keeping the reader glued wanting to know what is coming next.

Yes! This is exactly what I wanted to explore in this story and I'm glad it came through. Those careless remarks that mean nothing to one person can loom large in another person's mind. A common enough misunderstanding but the real test is in how all the parties ultimately work through those minor communication glitches. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!
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